The topic of "crunch," or extended periods of stressful and intense development that often happens at the end of a game's production or in the lead up to a milestone review, has been making headlines in recent weeks and months. Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser said a small team at Rockstar worked 100-hour weeks multiple times to finish Red Dead Redemption 2, while the closure of Telltale led to resurfaced reports about the stressful development and toxic culture at the California studio. There is a human cost to developing games, and this has become increasingly evident in recent times, though "crunch" itself has been a part of game development since the beginning of the business.
At PAX Australia this week, I had the opportunity to sit down with three top figures at one of the biggest game developers and publishers in the business: Bethesda. I wanted to know more about what the company thinks about the controversial topic, and what can be done to make things better.
I chatted with Bethesda marketing VP and executive Pete Hines; ZeniMax Online Studios boss and The Elder Scrolls Online game director Matt Firor; and Tim Willits, the studio director of Doom, Quake, and Rage studio id Software. Across three separate interviews, I heard largely the same story: each unit experiences periods of "crunch," but each man stressed the importance of taking time off to enjoy life outside of work.
Hines, who works in publishing and not development (he doesn't even work on the same floor as developers inside the office), said he emphasises to his team that they need to have a positive work/life balance. There are serious consequences to working too hard, he believes. "Burnt out, talented people are useless," Hines said emphatically.
Willits, who enlisted in the Army ROTC program to pay for college and believes everyone should spend a year in the Army, said if the studio's internal review process is working correctly, the amount of "crunch" should be minimal. Willits explained that in the course of development, id Software executives and higher-ups on the publishing side at Bethesda do a check throughout a game's development to ensure it doesn't lead to a situation where developers need to work long hours to meet a milestone.
"What we do is we have major checkpoints throughout the production of a game to ensure that we are in scope, that we are on schedule, and that we have the right resources," he said. "And then at these points throughout development, if we find that something gets out of whack, 'Uh oh, the scope's too big; we don't have the resources' then we can make these adjustments."
This is of course an ideal situation, but Willits made it clear that working extremely long hours has diminishing returns. "Employees become bad employees if they work too much. Working a 100-hour week, you mentally become so fatigued," he said. "You are less effective and less creative than working a good solid normal work week where you're productive is far better than a 100 hour week when you're not. It's been proven time and time again; [working long hours for extended periods of time] does not help."
As for ZeniMax Online Studios, the nature of the MMO genre is such that developers must constantly push out new content and updates to keep players coming back (and spending money). ZeniMax puts out new updates for The Elder Scrolls Online every 12 weeks, and Firor acknowledged that some might see this as a never-ending treadmill with workers constantly being pushed to stick to that schedule no matter the cost. Firor said ZeniMax is not perfect, but he believes the team is doing a good job at doing right by its employees. He pointed to how many ZeniMax employees have been with the studio for a decade or longer as evidence that people enjoy the studio culture and want to stay.
Below you can find the full comments from Hines, Willits, and Firor about crunch and what they're teams are doing about combating crunch.
Pete Hines; Bethesda Vice President
"I don't think I'm qualified to speak to what it is at Bethesda Game Studios or honestly at any of our studios. I'm not, day to day, in any of our studios. I do think from all of my time at Bethesda that I and we have tried to encourage a healthy work-life balance. I'm a father of two kids. My youngest was six months old when I started at Bethesda; now I have a 19-year-old and a 15-year-old. my entire career has been with one or two boys and I've managed to make sure as best I can that I am around and I'll leave work--my kid's got a soccer game, I'm going to go watch his game, I want to see him play. I'm going to leave for Australia for two weeks and I want to see him play one last time, and nobody goes, 'No, we're in this or that' I think we've tried to embrace and emphasize that I have a lot of people in my office that are in very different places in their life journey."
"I definitely have the oldest kids of anybody in my department. I have lots of people who just had kids or are expecting who are in a very different place, but I have always emphasised to them that you've got to have both. it's not to say that people don't work hard or work late, but I never tell anybody that 'you have to be here all night or you have to work so many hours.' that said, I have no business commenting on Rockstar or anybody else. I don't work there, I don't know. I don't even work upstairs at BGS. I don't know who is there or how long."
"All I can control is the folks I work with and I'm pretty clear with them that the balance has to be there [because otherwise] you burn out, and burnt out talented people are useless. I need people who feel like they are respected and want to keep working there as opposed to, 'I just chewed 'em up and spit 'em out.'"
Tim Willits; id Software Studio Director
"We believe the work/life balance is really important. This is all through Bethesda. What we do is we have major checkpoints throughout the production of a game to ensure that we are in scope, that we are on schedule, and that we have the right resources. And then at these points throughout development, if we find that something gets out of whack, 'Uh oh, the scope's too big; we don't have the resources' then we can make these adjustments. And that's really important. Bethesda does a really good job with these major milestone check-ins. And then we have all the stakeholders at the publishing level that review, 'how are you, where are you' and we work with HR; we have a great PTO policy, in my opinion. Our managers also have some flexibility. If someone works a little extra here, they give them a little extra off over there. So I do think we have a good balance where we've been able to avoid some major problems."
"We have very passionate employees but as someone who has been in this industry for a long time--I have triplets, I have a family. When you're at work, you work smart. You don't waste time watching YouTube videos at work. When you're home, you're with your kids and your family. This has been proven for so long. Employees become bad employees if they work too much. Working a 100-hour week, you mentally become so fatigued. You are less effective and less creative than working a good solid normal work week where you're productive is far better than a 100 hour week when you're not. It's been proven time and time again; [working long hours for extended periods of time] does not help."
Matt Firor; Game Director ZeniMax Online Studios
"I'm never going to hold us up as perfect but we let the teams determine what they're going to do per update. Because, yes, every 12 weeks sounds like it's a treadmill, but we know there is going to be an update 12 weeks later. So we don't have to cram everything in to so it really lets us schedule out what we want to do. And again, we're not perfect, but we've hard a very stable group of people for a long time. We have lots of 10-year anniversaries every group meeting. So I think we're doing pretty good."